In case you haven’t noticed, some of my reviews over the last couple months have been cross-posted to Travis Hopson’s Punch Drunk Critics site. I get some wider exposure, and Travis gets some help covering the ever-expanding number of weekly releases. Anyway, when the screener for Balls Out came up, nobody jumped at it. Honestly, the title alone is kind of off-putting, and then there’s the awful poster, and the trailer doesn’t do it any favors either.
But then this post from one of the actors made the rounds on film Twitter. Evidently the movie was shot — and screened at Tribeca in 2014 — as Intramural. The new title and new marketing was the work of MGM, who bought the movie for distribution. They decided to target it at high-school and college boys as if it were a sex comedy, despite the lack of pretty much any sex in the movie itself. So, hey, maybe it’s worth a try after all?
Sadly, not quite. While Balls Out is a better movie than its poster, trailer, and title would suggest, MGM wasn’t exactly wrong to aim it at an audience driven by puerile sensibilities. Writer Bradley Jackson’s script is aiming at a self-aware send-up of the Epic Sports Movie genre, in much the same spirit as They Came Together, the romantic comedy spoof with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd you didn’t see last year. But even that movie — driven by The State alums David Wain and Michael Showalter — couldn’t sustain real interest in its premise beyond the first act.
Maybe this sort of thing just doesn’t work well at feature length, especially when the writing is so explicitly self-aware. The idea runs thin quickly; you could probably get a solid short out of it, but getting longer means you need to add a lot of filler. In a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film they use nonstop gags and a genuinely surreal sensibility, but in this movie’s case it means a lot of dick jokes, bro-ishness, and awkwardly-handled homosociality.
And it starts off fast: Caleb (Jake Lacy) quit intramural flag football in his first year at college after accidentally paralyzing his friend Grant (Nick Kocher) “from the balls down”. I get it: we need an injury, but a funny one since this is a comedy, and funny equals balls here. That pretty much sets the tone from here on out.
In his fifth year, about to head off to law school, Caleb gets dragged back into the world of flag football, despite the obstacle it poses to his terrible relationship with Vicky (Kate McKinnon) and a job under her father, both of whom struggle towards one-dimensionality. He reassembles a ragtag group of misfits — even recruiting Grant as the grizzled coach figure — to take on the team led by his old rival, Dick (Beck Bennett). Trust me, they miss no opportunity to let that name go unused. Oh, and of course there’s a Better Girl for Caleb to win, who naturally happens to be Dick’s sister Meredith (Nikki Reed).
Honestly, there really is probably a solid, witty short film in here. Grant’s metatextual pep talks are good, and Jake’s speech leading into the Big Game is second only to Terrence Howard’s from Movie 43. And Jay Pharoah and D.C. Pierson do a great job as a pair of perpetual students with nothing better to do than hang out in the bleachers and offer unofficial commentary on the games.
But all the sophomoric humor that gets thrown in threatens to smother what actual comedy there is here. The result is a slog without enough good parts to reward the effort of sitting through the lazy and mediocre.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.